'After years of abuse it just turns you into a freak' - North Belfast father speaks of overcoming 20-year cocaine addiction
Liam Kealey (41) from north Belfast is married with three children, but for 20 years he lived a double life dominated by a crippling cocaine addiction.
Approaching two years of sobriety, he now helps to run the Break Free Belfast group that supports addicts through activities like hiking and mixed martial arts.
Recently attending The Killers concert in Belfast last month, he said it has taken a lot of work to rebuild trust with his wife that he is not using in secret.
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Starting out with drinking and cannabis with friends from the age of 12, this led to using glue and by the age of 21 he started taking cocaine in what became a seven-day a week habit.
Mixing alcohol with cocaine, he further gambled with his life by taking prescription medications at night to help him sleep.
“Cocaine started as a bit of fun at the weekend but it got out of control really quickly,” he told the Irish News.
“Back then it would have been harder to come by. Now you can get it easier than you can buy a loaf of bread and you can get it delivered straight to your door.
“It’s actually really crazy at the moment, people don’t stand a chance to be honest with you.
“Years ago it would have just been Belfast or Ballymena, but now it’s rife in every wee town up and down the country.”
After two years of taking cocaine, he said the social element transformed into him becoming a recluse and using every day.
“There was times I was getting up and on my way to work at 7am I was grabbing some. I would come home still on it after taking it all day in work,” he said.
“Back then I was really good at hiding it because I turned into a bit of a liar. After years of abuse it just turns you into a freak, where if you touch it you’re shaking and paranoid.
“It just messes with your head. It was starting to destroy my life about four years into the 20 year addiction.
“I’m actually surprised my wife hung in there, on a Friday I would go out saying I was going to the shop.
“But I would turn my phone off and not come home till Sunday night. Thousands of people are like that.
“Then the kids have to go to school and it’s just mayhem.”
On using prescription drugs to help him sleep at night, he said: “More or less you’re going into the kitchen cupboard and seeing what makes you drowsy.
“There’s an epidemic of fake prescripton drugs now as well, so they’re readily available and you’re able to get diazepam off your mates.
“Most people in the house have antihistamines which make you drowsy, so that’s what I was mostly reaching for myself. You just don’t think.”
It took 10 years of trying before Liam was able to break the cycle, having tried things like hypnotists and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“Nothing seemed to work, the urge and the voice in my head was just tricking me every time,” he said.
He said a technique known as Addiction Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT) was what worked for him, a process of trying to understand the push and pull between rational thought and the overwhelming cravings of addiction.
“I now try to get people out on the walks to start with, then if they want more information I’ll point them towards videos and books that help to train their brain.”
He said repairing the trust with his family has been one of the most difficult parts of his journey.
“When you’re in the grip of addiction you’re constantly saying, ‘that’s the last time, it won’t happen again’.
“Then maybe the next night you’re away again. I think my wife’s only starting to believe me now.
“I was out at The Killers last month and I just don’t drink. But it’s taken a long time for her to believe me after crying wolf for years.”
Liam has also made the decision to talk to his two older children about his addictions.
“I was leaving one to school and brought it up, but he said ‘daddy you don’t need to tell me, I know.’ “So I had to tell him I had a cocaine problem I was hiding from them.”
“But I’m glad it’s out there as I want to start expanding the group, so I will probably start to talk more about my experience.”